Asbestos-related Colon (Colorectal) Cancer

In addition to lung diseases, people who work with asbestos-containing materials are at risk of cancers of the colon and rectum (colorectal cancer). About 10 years following exposure, toxic fibers that land in the large intestine could become cancerous.

Can Asbestos Exposure Cause Colon (Colorectal) Cancer?

Typically, the chronic disease most associated with asbestos exposure is mesothelioma. However, being exposed to the known carcinogen also puts you at risk of respiratory and digestive system cancers. Colorectal (the colon and rectum) cancer, for instance, is a health risk for asbestos-exposed workers across a range of industries.

In the U.S., asbestos kills over 12,000 people every year. Mesothelioma is the cancerous disease most-linked to the mineral fiber. Mainly, those tumors affect the lining surrounding some organs. Yet, microscopic fibers sometimes travel far inside the body (such as into the stomach and intestines). In some cases, fibers may even reach the last segment of the digestive system: the large intestine.

What Is the Colorectum?

The colorectum, comprised of the colon and the rectum, makes up the large intestine. Usually, the colon is about 5 feet long and ends in the rectum. The four sections of the colon have names depending on the direction food moves through them (i.e., ascending, descending).

After the small intestine, the colon removes the last salt and water from food. Next, food passes into the closing 6 inches of the colorectum: the rectum. Also, the rectum holds digested material until moving it out through the anus.

Unlike the mesothelium, colorectal cancers grow on the inner lining of the organs. Initially, polyps grow on the inside walls of the colorectum. Then, tumorous growths move outward through the organ’s many walls. Inside colorectal walls, tumor cells reach blood vessels and travel on to lymph nodes around the body.

Generally, the types of tumors growing in the colorectum include:

  • Adenocarcinomas
  • Carcinoid tumors
  • Gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs)
  • Lymphomas
  • Sarcomas

Symptoms of Colon Cancer

Initially, colorectal cancers don’t always lead to symptoms. It may take time (about a decade) for symptoms to appear. Moreover, signs of colon cancer share similarities with other lower digestive system conditions (such as hemorrhoids, infection, and irritable bowel syndrome). Nonetheless, visit your doctor if you have one or more of the following symptoms colorectal cancer symptoms:

  • Anemia (low red blood cell count)
  • Blood in your stool (may look dark brown or black colored)
  • Bright red blood coming from the rectum
  • Cramping in the belly
  • Diarrhea or constipation that last several days or keeps coming back
  • Feeling like you can’t fully relieve your bowels
  • Feeling weak or tired all the time
  • Losing weight without trying

Early Screening and Diagnosis

Among cancer diagnoses, colorectal cancer is the third most common. In 2021, the American Cancer Society estimates about 104,000 new colon cancer diagnoses and 45,000 new rectal cancer diagnoses. Over 90% of cases occur among Americans over 50 years old. Yet, rates fell each year among adults over 65 years old – largely thanks to early screening.

Early colorectal cancer screening looks for polyps in those without symptoms. Typically, screening for tumors helps catch them in high-risk individuals (like asbestos workers) before they grow or spread. Methods to screen for polyps include:

  • Stool tests
  • Visual exam
    • Colonoscopy
    • X-ray

To diagnose cancer of the colon or rectum, a diagnostic colonoscopy test is done. For rectal polyps, doctors instead use a proctoscopy. During these visual examinations, your doctor takes a biopsy of suspected areas. A colorectal biopsy removes a sample of potentially cancerous tissue cells for analysis in a laboratory.

After a colorectal cancer diagnosis, doctors determine how far it has spread (known as staging). Stages range from 0 (very early-stage colorectum cancers) to IV (4). Stage IV is the most advanced phase of cancer. Also, doctors use the TNM system to describe tumor size (T), spread to lymph nodes (N), and metastasis throughout the body (M).

Treatment

Usually, colon cancer treatment depends on the stage, the patient’s health, and the goals of therapy. Normally, surgery removes tumors from early-stage cancers that haven’t spread outside the colorectum. Additionally, radiation therapy shrinks tumors or kills tumor cells not removed via surgery. At times, radiotherapy is combined with chemotherapy to increase effectiveness (known as chemoradiation).

Instead of local treatments, systemic (or whole body) therapies treat advanced-stage colorectal cancers. System anti-cancer treatment focuses on killing tumors in the colon and rectum as well as wherever else they have spread. Systemic treatments include:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Targeted therapy

Lawsuits for Asbestos-related Colon Cancer

When a person’s colon cancer is linked to a history of asbestos exposure, they may be eligible for legal compensation. As with mesothelioma lawsuits, the plaintiff files for personal injury or wrongful death damages against the company (or companies) responsible for the asbestos manufacturing and exposure.

State statute of limitations prevents filing lawsuits after a certain time. Thus, it’s important to talk to a qualified professional as soon as possible.